Retired English professor Sisney’s (Growth Through Fiction: Short Stories for the Basic Reader, 2008) improbably comic memoir about a black woman’s career in white-dominated academia.
Born into a working-class African-American community in Kentucky during the waning Jim Crow years, Sisney traversed a veritable cultural minefield to get her doctorate and a tenured professorship. In five decades at “white institutions,” including 30 years at California Polytechnic State University, Sisney faced formidable sexism and racism. The author blends seriousness and humor when documenting life as a double-minority professor in the 1970s, ’80 and ’90s. She gives fellow professors entertaining pseudonyms such as Superfly, a white male professor who worked overtime to convey his coolness via “some kind of jive talking, black hip language.” She occasionally switched to black vernacular to “fix his old white ass,” a typical example of the author’s wry way of coping with insufferable colleagues. Sisney critiques culture and politics with similar hilarity, describing, for instance, her desire to administer a “No Fool Left Behind” test to former President George W. Bush to assess his literary aptitude. Even plentiful parentheses, a couple of long-running chapters and overly detailed accounts of academic committee meetings fail to dampen the farcical spirit that animates the book. Beneath all this humor, however, is an unflinching account of the serious discriminatory practices that fester in the supposedly enlightened ivory tower. Although primarily about her career, the narrative also touches on Sisney’s personal life, with particularly poignant reflections on her fraught relationship with her mother. The book brims with pop-culture references and, at times, peculiar and funny meditations on topics ranging from contemporary American sexuality to O.J. Simpson’s murder trial.
With allusions to the black literary canon and chapter titles drawn from African-American music, Sisney’s tragicomic memoir speaks to a diverse audience.